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“The trees are absolutely essential”

This Wednesday, I visited the 5 greenhouses that EcoLogic has built and currently manages in Totonicapan, Guatemala. Within each greenhouse are 16,500 saplings of several varieties of native trees. Community members, led by two local full-time caretakers, do everything: collect the seeds from the forest, plant them, water them with water flowing from the forest above the greenhouses, apply organic compost and fertilizers, and then take them into the forest once they’re big enough (about 10 months old). The greenhouses are managed by Don Augustin. This man LOVES TREES! Three more greenhouses are currently under construction and will be done this year! We have greenhouses in this region because of the altitude – it’s pretty cool and at night it even frosts over. Also, the greenhouses protect the trees from animals and insects and offer the ability to set up irrigation systems.

All the trees will be planted around water sources and in recharge zones (land that absorbs water faster than most) in order to combat erosion and ensure that the water doesn’t dry out. In order to get water in your home, you have to do two things: 1) pay a water user fee to your local village water committee (each village has one of these – totally volunteer run) and 2.) volunteer your time in some capacity. The water user fee covers expenses related to the maintenance of water tanks, pipes, etc. The volunteering can consist of helping out in the greenhouses, reforesting, or providing materials for the greenhouses, like soil or compost. Most people opt to reforest, and during the months of May and June – the beginning of the rainy season – groups of community members enter the forest with all the saplings from the greenhouses and plant the trees in strategic places around their water source.

Each village water board has an executive committee that manages the money, goes into the forest to check out and perform maintenance on the tanks and pipes, and ensure that each household is volunteering and paying their fee. Or the water gets cut! Village water board leadership are voted into their position and the leadership changes each year.

So what’s a water source? It’s basically the ground. That’s it. Community members have identified spots in the forest where there’s significant water underground, based on the type of plants that are growing and the moisture in the soil. Then, you dig it out, lay some concrete in a way that collects the water, and install a pipe that carries the water to a larger tank. This larger tank collects the water from several of these sources, called “nacimientos” or “births.” From the larger collecting tank, the water travels via pipe all the way to a community distribution tank, which could be 10 or 15 kilometers away. From the distribution tank, the water travels to households.

Ain’t gravity something?

So the water essentially comes from the ground, not a stream or river or well. It’s not that deep. The reason you want to capture the water from the ground itself is because it’s pure. If you get it out of the stream or river, it could be contaminated with animal waste, algae, tadpoles, trash, who knows? So you get the water before it’s exposed to the elements. The trees sort of filter and slow down the water after it rains which enables the water to accumulate enough to be captured. The trees are absolutely essential.

I asked Fernando, EcoLogic’s project technician in Totonicapan, how everyone knows that there is a close relationship between the trees and water; if some expert came in and told everyone or if the people have known for generations. I bet you can guess the answer: they knew. They knew based on experiences of villages who cut all the trees in their nearby forests and lost their water. And these stories have been passed down for generations. It was later that the experts came in and essentially confirmed what the locals already understood.